That England and New Zealand are contesting in the 2019 Cricket World Cup final on Sunday is a fitting tribute to the knockout stage of the tournament.
They finished third and fourth, respectively, in the one and only group the competition featured before they went on to pull off "upsets" by beating defending champions Australia and tournament favourites India in the semi-finals.
Those complaining about New Zealand’s victory against India, in particular, miss the point that this is a cup competition and not a league. It is not the most consistent team that necessarily wins the title, but the one that is able to rise to the occasion in a crunch match.
England may be favourites to win at Lord’s for three reasons: they beat New Zealand in their group game, have more firepower with the bat and are the tournament hosts. And yet, New Zealand have as much of a chance of winning despite being underdogs – just like was the case against India at Old Trafford.
Guaranteed new winners
What makes the final even more fascinating to watch is the prospect of celebrating a first-time winner. England are three-time losing finalists having suffered heartbreaks in 1979, 1987 and 1992, while the Black Caps finished second best in the only summit clash they played in – in 2015.
Interestingly, both teams seem to have taken the lessons they learnt the hard way in the 2015 tournament and applied them to a certain extent in 2019.
New Zealand have six survivors from the final demolition they received against Australia four years ago, while England overhauled not just their squad but their entire approach to limited-overs cricket after suffering the ignominy of a first-round exit.
Irrespective of which team wins on Sunday, they will both have provided insights and inspiration to other sides when the focus inevitably shifts to 2023.
Batting first at Lord’s
Win toss, bat first – this seems to be a no-brainer of a strategy on Sunday, for two reasons.
Firstly, four matches have been played at this venue – famously known as the ‘Makkah of Cricket’ – and all of them have been won by teams batting first. The pitch has so far not sprung any pleasant surprises for the bowlers, particularly the seamers, and teams have posted first-innings totals of 308, 285, 243 and 315. The victory margins of 49, 64, 86 and 94 runs suggest it has been a struggle to bat second.
Also in big matches, it makes sense to first put some runs on the board – so long as they are not woefully below par – and then apply scoreboard pressure. This is how seven of the 11 World Cup finals have been won.
Of course, it is telling that four of the last six finals have been won by sides chasing – including the 1999 summit clash at Lord’s between Australia and Pakistan – which is possibly the outcome of the continued evolution of batting in limited-overs cricket. Flatter pitches and the advent of Twenty20 cricket have helped continue this trend in recent years.
But unless conditions favour seamers in the first couple of hours on Sunday, captains will almost certainly do the sensible thing and bat first.
England’s batting v New Zealand’s bowling
On paper, England look more formidable: they have a once-in-a-generation batting line-up and plenty of options when it comes to bowling. New Zealand, on the other hand, have a strong bowling attack, but they have depended chiefly on captain Kane Williamson and old hand Ross Taylor for the bulk of their runs.
This means the most decisive battle is likely to be between England’s batsmen and New Zealand’s bowlers – especially if England bat first.
Guptill’s best/last chance
New Zealand opener Martin Guptill has cut a frustrated figure in the tournament.
After scoring an unbeaten 73 in the opening match against Sri Lanka, he has only managed 25, 0, 35, 0, 5, 20, 8 and 1 for an aggregate of 167 runs. It is a far cry from the chart-topping 547 he managed in 2015.
One of the more endearing sights in their semi-final win in Manchester was Guptill’s celebration after sensationally running out MS Dhoni. He knew he had given his team a sure-shot path to the final and, perhaps, another chance to redeem himself with the bat.
Guptill is class player and someone who still cares so much about the game. Whether he can come out on tops against Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes will determine how much he scores, and it could well have a bearing on the final result.